Roberta Brown-Jones, Nederland. Saddened by the state of the world these days, I began searching for something to read that would take me out of my bad frame of mind. My criteria for a good distraction: the books had to have nothing to do with politics, terrorism, climate change or other imminent crises. In searching through the shelves of new books at NCL, I found a couple of perfect prospects and was not disappointed: Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley and The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick. Both are first novels for their authors.
Lily and the Octopus is an authentic love story; it just happens that the object of affection is a dog. Rowley writes with a good dose of humor as well as pathos. The book is loosely based on Rowley’s own experiences with his dog and shows a keen insight into the reasons we develop such strong bonds with dogs.
The book’s gay, middle-aged protagonist has board game and movie nights with Lily, his beloved, elderly dachshund, and has long conversations with her (sound familiar?). While Lily’s owner, Ted, anthropomorphizes Lily almost beyond belief, he still captures the very real attachments we have for our pets and how life-saving they can be at our most vulnerable times. There are sections where Rowley uses a bit too much magical realism for my taste, but he carries the plot along nicely and explores the human psyche as well. Along the way, he also provides a bit of information about cephalopods.
Rowley captures the joyful exuberance of dogs by putting Lily’s “speech” in caps with exclamation points. In contrast, Ted’s dog’s facial tumor is personified as an octopus, malicious looking and evil acting. It is Ted’s quest to defeat the octopus that brings him near the brink of insanity, revealing shades of Melville’s tale of whale obsession. The octopus is a fitting metaphor for cancer, graphically capturing its seeming evilness and relentlessness, for dogs and people alike.
Ultimately, Rowley’s book is about how people cope with the inevitability of the loss of loved ones. If we are to survive, we all must learn, somehow, to reconnect with the world after the tragedy of loss. His novel shows that we can come out on the other side intact, transformed, and sometimes more fully realized as human beings.
The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is reminiscent of another book I enjoyed in the past, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. In both, an older man overcomes tragedy by embarking on a quest, somewhat unintentionally at first, through which he learns to find joy again. Arthur’s dead wife’s charm bracelet provides the incentive for his quest and the charms become the vehicle for his transformation. The author cleverly weaves together Arthur’s wife’s past, showing that couples can be together for decades and still have parts of their past that are never revealed.
Arthur has many adventures during his quest that move him outside of his comfort zone and he realizes that he quite likes the vividness that new experiences bring to his formerly mundane existence. His quest gives him a new sense of compassion for the suffering of others and connects him with the outside world again, shattering his old routines.
Both books emphasize the importance that human and animal connections can have in a world that often makes people feel more isolated and disconnected than ever. They also demonstrate that traumatic events can cause us to grow and transform in ways we could never have predicted.
After the contentious election and its sometimes brutal rhetoric, many of us have had to regroup, take a sanity break, and now must move on. We will all be learning coping mechanisms along the way and figuring out how we can be active members of this new, baffling era we’ll be entering. I like to think (perhaps naively) that books like these can awaken in their readers a compassion for others that goes beyond political or religious affiliations. Let’s hope so.
Roberta Brown-Jones is a Library Assistant at the Nederland Community Library.